Saturday, January 15, 2022

With France-focused program, artistic adviser Jun Märkl helps ISO resume Classical Series


Jun Märkl caught spectacle and nuance of Ravel masterpiece.

As the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra struggles to figure out what kind of "new normal" it will have, a major focus is the search for a new music director. 

Based on the evidence of his past success as a guest conductor, Jun Märkl has superior qualifications for the post of artistic adviser. The job title leaves open the question of how good his advice may be, but his rapport with the ISO after numerous appearances on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium bodes well.

CEO James Johnson, in a welcoming speech to Friday night's audience, noted that the Japanese-German maestro's return conducting engagement marks his performing debut in his transitional position. Märkl delivered magnificently in the program's second half, to be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon, with a scintillating performance of Maurice Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé."

The work was last performed here under the baton of the most recent music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, in 2014. That memorable production involved dancers from Dance Kaleidoscope, choreographed by the company's artistic director, David Hochoy. Necessarily, my attention was focused on the stage, so it was good to enjoy the full sonic spectrum of the score in a concert version.  

A missing element that invariably makes a performance of the complete ballet more thrilling is the wordless chorus, which was used in the 2014 performance. With the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, it made for one of the great collaborations of recent ISO history. Given pandemic-related strictures on choral singing, such completeness was probably inadvisable this time around. 

The subsequent loss of atmosphere — Ravel's evocation of the mythical setting on an ancient Greek island — is considerable. As full as the orchestral palette is, the effect is a little bit like watching "The Wizard of Oz" without the heroine's fantasy song "Over the Rainbow" to introduce the adventure. In a sense, to hear the complete "Daphnis et Chloé" without the chorus is akin to getting a realistic reminder that Dorothy never actually left Kansas. 

Be that as it may, the evocation of the ballet's scenario struck the ear agreeably throughout. The conductor drew from the orchestra precise and enlivened dance rhythms as the "Danse religieuse" yielded to the "Danse generale" in the opening tableau. The bassoon-and-percussion hints of awkwardness were delicious as the goatherd Dorcon (great name — did Ravel know Yiddish?) tries to attract the heroine. His attempts are laughed away by the orchestra, and it was one of several graceful touches in Friday's performance. 

The menacing pirates were vigorously depicted in an exhibition of Ravel's mastery of orchestration at its most forceful. When another touch of atmosphere — the wind machine the composer calls for — came through as rather wispy, it hardly mattered. We were by then in thrall to the interpretation, guided with detailed cueing from the conductor, working without score.  That was probably reassuring to an ensemble recently unused to complexity (after the oft-repeated, comparatively lucrative production of Yuletide Celebration last month). The emergence of the great shadow of Pan that climaxes the second tableau was awe-inspiring.

The depiction of daybreak at the start of the third tableau, which accounts for the popularity of the more often-performed second suite that Ravel drew from the ballet score, sounded both firm and subtle. The duo of the title characters paying tribute to the myth of Pan and Syrinx, highlighted by the excellent flute soloing of Rebecca Price Arrensen, exuded charm and reverence. Shortly thereafter, Märkl managed adroitly the ebb and flow of the pulse-pounding "Danse generale" to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion. The way the orchestra joined in the huge ovation during one of Märkl's curtain calls, and the way he responded to it,  set a seal upon their mutual regard. 

To open the concert, Märkl's return was enhanced by the engagement of the reliably exuberant

Gil Shaham enjoyed his work in two compositions.

violinist Gil Shaham, who occupied the  spotlight in two works, the Violin Concerto No. 9 in G major by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." On his last ISO visit, he was even busier, conducting as well. And, as in November 2016, he seemed buoyantly happy to be there. The attitude communicated itself to audience and orchestra like.

Bologne is among black composers of historical interest who have been enjoying a vogue in recent years. Showcasing the solo instrument against a large string orchestra, the piece has an inviting classical-period stature. The first movement sports distinctive themes; the second, a somber Largo, has the feeling of a baroque aria. There's a steady throbbing in the accompaniment as it goes along; you can hear Handel in it. The music's lyricism is restrained yet deeply felt, it seems. The rondo finale, which is concise to the point of abruptness, gives the soloist lots of busywork. It amounts to a distinct falling-off from how the concerto begins.

The familiar Sarasate treatment of several themes, well-placed in an expressively coherent order from Bizet's tragic opera "Carmen," brought to the stage a larger orchestra. Shaham's well-centered tone allowed for the violin's sound to penetrate in all contexts. The piece gave him great opportunity for display, which he relished in a straightforward manner. 

The nimbleness and flair of his left hand reminded me of the dazzling aplomb of Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012).  Romping along the fingerboard seemed like child's play to this exuberant artist. The Habanera and Seguidilla insinuated themselves in the seductive manner of the title character (though I take exception to the program note's labeling Carmen a prostitute). The harmonics sang out, and the left-hand pizzicati sparkled. Shaham's playing worked hand-in-glove with the conductor's sympathetic control of the orchestra. The touristy title of the program, "Greetings from France," was loaded with exclamation points by virtue of Friday's performance.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Dance Kaleidoscope: Two choreographed perspectives on 'Romeo and Juliet' open the New Year

"Sweet Sorrow": Justin Rainey, Emily Dyson

Art can have so much resonance with current American anxieties, even when we turn to the arts to provide welcome distractions.

Heard on the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the well-known prologue to  "Romeo and Juliet"  rang an eerie alarm. It reminds us that an old feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in long-ago Verona, Italy, presents a "new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." 

Though focused on the tragic outcome of one couple's forbidden love, hanging over "Romeo and Juliet" is a story of the breakdown of community. That affair is central to Shakespeare's play, but the peril to civic tranquility is a strong theme.

Those words were recited, along with the final couplet of the romantic tragedy,  on Thursday night as Dance Kaleidoscope opened "Star-Crossed Lovers," a program of two works based on the play, one of them a premiere. It was an inspiring choice to introduce the program with the prologue, given clarion focus opening night (and for the next two performances) by Kelsey Johnson of the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company.

The play, a favorite of many for generations,  provides the occasion for two dance interpretations. One of

Paige Robinson in Hochoy's ethereal "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy"

them, by artistic director David Hochoy, dates from 2012.  His "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy" takes its music and its title from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The new work is by Stuart Coleman, who was appointed DK's associate artistic director last year. Modernizing the story and the characters at Hochoy's suggestion, Coleman reassigns a few of the roles in tribute to gender fluidity's claim to reinforce full-spectrum humanity.

As a choreographer, Coleman has never struck me as caught up in modernist irony, so his embrace of new aspects of this story never seemed to be a critique of the play. On the contrary, he is a wholehearted romantic, forgivably sentimental at times,  and seems particularly gifted at finding fresh ways to tell stories in dance. "Sweet Sorrow," whose title comes from Juliet's farewell at the end of the Balcony Scene ("Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow") also demonstrates how well Coleman knits character into narrative. 

For instance, a love duet for the newly smitten couple places their inflamed passion in a context of doubt and apprehension. Embraces have tucked into them anxious looks away, hints of hesitation at the dangerous prospects ahead. Coleman's casting seems perfect: company newcomer Justin Rainey and six-season member Marie Kuhns showed a partnership as solid as if it had been a long time in the making. The resolve of each dancer in character made the tragedy they face especially poignant. The emotions may be mixed, but are held in control by physical dauntlessness.

I liked Coleman's fading away from narrative responsibilities near the end. The accidental suicide of the couple in the tomb is quickly sealed by their last, floor-bound embrace. All the miscommunication that locks in their failure to progress toward happiness is elided. The good-hearted but misdirected Friar Laurence is a nonentity in "Sweet Sorrow."  

Benvolio and the Nurse join hands in determination that something good  may come out of the lovers' demise.

In that death scene, a tableau gradually coalesces of mourners representing both sides of the feud in solemn array. Effecting the rapprochement are Juliet's nurse (Manuel Valdes) and Romeo's friend Benvolio (Holly Harkins). A few twitches of residual hostility and frustration among some of the Veronese were put to symbolic rest by Benvolio's firm but calming gestures. Once again, Coleman's design showed its sure hand in bringing out the enduring values of a community capable of healing after much strife. 

Staging had moments of spectacle when appropriate. Laura E. Glover's lighting, which DK fans have long treasured as an essential component of its repertoire, came to Lord Capulet's party fully prepared. The brilliance of Erica Johnston's costumes, which reinforced the gender-fluid production aspect as needed, got full support from group movement during the revels. The music pulsated with disco intensity, part of a selection of music throughout that was keen to the mood of each scene, starting with an adaptation of Prokofiev's masterly treatment of the story against a suspended geometric set of thin lines suggesting conflict. Amid the roiling collective energy at the party, the quickly engaged mutual attraction of Romeo and Juliet has a vividness in this show that almost seems surprising, given that we all know it's coming. 

A special benefit of Coleman's unconventional gender assignment is his casting of Natalie Clevenger as Tybalt, Juliet's cousin and the kind of spark plug every feud needs in order to rekindle from time to time. As impressive as her ferocity was as a living hothead, my favorite scene was Tybalt's posthumous appearance  to the lovers; the ache of what his death represents in the play could not be described better than in the way Tybalt, with ghostly firmness,  indicates that this love will not last. For all their declarations, Romeo and Juliet are our culture's chief reminder that what may seem imperishable about love always must be given a perishable incarnation. The pas de trois for Clevenger, Rainey, and Kuhns is a scene I'll remember for a long time for its imaginative underlining of this truth.

Hochoy's piece was worth visiting again for its elegant flow and its sustained distribution of the essential story among four couples, one of whom represents parental desire for restraint and control of the mad fancies of youth. "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy" takes cues from Tchaikovsky's heart-melting score about the ebbs and swells of the doomed loved affair, seen with prismatic clarity. There is a fine realization of the mistakes that characterize the death scene, resulting in the demise of each lover in succession. The choreography honors the sweep and majestic conclusion well-known from Tchaikovsky's music. 

Cheryl Sparks' costumes and Glover's lighting complement the often balletic language of the choreography. Coolness and classical reserve never inhibit the emotional fervor. The inevitable separation of the lovers  is just as poignantly realized as in Coleman's piece, but in a much different fashion. These two treatments of "Romeo and Juliet" work well together, such that "Star-Crossed Lovers" is a great presentation of the current state of this reliably excellent company.

[Photos by Lora Olive]

Saturday, December 18, 2021

'Fiddler' without voices: Kelly Hall-Tompkins takes a holiday

 Part of the aura of "Fiddler on the Roof" into which Kelly Hall-Tompkins stepped about five years

Kelly Hall-Tompkins

ago is its status as an enduring monument of the American musical stage.

In the title role, the violinist's association with a revived Broadway production of the 1964 hit musical has resulted in a clutch of arrangements (hers and chiefly Oran Eldor's) showcasing her virtuoso skills, usually with the accompaniment of accordion, double bass and guitar.

The instrumentation keeps the folk flavor of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick music intact. It also reflects the sensitivity, wit, and pathos of Joseph Stein's book and its rootedness in stories by Sholem Aleichem about village life of Jews living under tsarist rule just after the turn of the 20th century.

In a touring presentation Thursday night at Madam Walker Theater Center, Hall-Tompkins sailed through a selection of the musical adaptations she commissioned and, in the case of "If I Were a Rich Man," created herself. The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis presented "Fiddler's Holiday: Expanding Tradition" in its Laureate Series.

After a kind of overture in the form of Eldor's "Rhapsody and Scherzo," with quotes from "Sunrise, Sunset" and "To Life"  lending most of the musical substance, the ensemble launched into "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Hall-Tompkins' fleet adeptness and savvy ornamentation were convincingly exhibited in that overture. In the song of the milkman Tevye's daughters hoping for the best results from their required arranged marriages, the violinist's grasp of emotional nuance moved front and center. The characters' various forms of wishful thinking came through in her performance.

Many members of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra attended, and family groups were common among the enthusiastic attendees. That fact would have made welcome a little more context in Hall-Tompkins' remarks from the stage. As well-known as "Fiddler on the Roof" is, some brief orientation to what the songs express could only have enhanced the audience's enjoyment. 

It would have been especially useful in Hall-Tompkins' spoken introduction to the duet of Tevye and his wife, Golde. She advised the audience to listen to how she would play Golde's startled "Do I WHAT?" response to her husband's question: "Do you love me?"  Hall-Tompkins' rendition of that line was superb, but I wonder if those unfamiliar with the story line realized that Golde is not expressing skepticism that Tevye is lovable. She's amazed at the question because theirs was an arranged marriage, according to tradition, and love's relevance to the lifelong bond in shtetl culture was an innovation in that milieu.

For that reason, the song "Tradition," which sets the social parameters of the whole show, could have been given more attention in "Fiddler's Holiday." No one expects an instrumental presentation of songs to fill in all the blanks (of either lyrics or plot), but this concert might have taken Hall-Tompkins' obvious love of "Fiddler on the  Roof" to a more evident level. And it could have all been handled by a few more oral program notes. 

Near the end were a couple of nods to the holiday season, sprightly versions of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Jingle Bells." A lively side trip to another show drawing from the same cultural well was the nostalgic "My Mother's Menorah" from "The Odd Potato," by Gail C. Bluestone. 

This was among the tender aspects of solo violin playing in which the legacy is rich. Also moving as an indication of the soloist's investment in her material was how she played "Anatevka," "Fiddler on the Roof"'s farewell to the community from the inhabitants forced into exile. Throughout this song and others, the alertness and feeling for color displayed by guitarist Stephen Benson, accordionist Joshua Camp, and bassist John-Paul Norpoth put Hall-Tompkins in the best light, in which she shone.


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Dover Quartet continues its fresh perspective on Beethoven's string quartets

It's good to follow what the Midwestern-based Dover Quartet has to say definitively as it makes its way through the Beethoven cycle for Cedille Records. A couple of months ago, "Volume 2: The Middle Quartets" was issued, and I've just gotten around to listening to the three-disc set thoroughly. The experience sustains my initial reaction to the Dover's expressive unanimity and technical élan.

Here's part of what I wrote the first time I heard the Dover Quartet in person two years ago at a concert presented by Ensemble Music Society:

"The Dover launched its appearance with an impulsive but well-knit account of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, op. 95, dubbed Serioso after a word in the heading of its third movement. The atmosphere suggested by the word was sustained, even through the lickety-split coda of the finale. The dour feeling of the slow movement, with its downward sliding phrases, had notable sweetness from the first violin and striking plangency of viola tone. The transition to the namesake 'serioso' third movement was excellent, a foreshadowing of the connections the quartet was to forge along with the pianist in the Shostakovich [piano quintet, with Inon Barnatan ]."

The Cedille performance of that work concludes "The Middle Quartets," which are presented in chronological order. Those "downward-sliding phrases" are illustrative of the Dover's pinpoint intonation, and apply well beyond the first violin (Joel Link). Articulation is at the same high level with this ensemble, and accounts for its security in the Allegro coda of the last movement, whose main section carries the description Allegretto agitato. That direction serves as a warning, and behind the innocent-looking designation heading the coda is the requirement to play it as lightly as possible. 

The Dover can be both light and agitated when need be, and the end of this quartet is as exciting as this set's predictably exuberant Allegro molto finale of Op. 59, No. 3 in C major. I don't think I've ever heard a performance of this movement so fast and so secure. 

Dover Quartet makes its distinguished way through Beethoven.

It's also worth mentioning the emotional weight given to the relatively slow movement of the same piece, Allegretto ma non troppo.  The recording quality is so good that cellist Camden Shaw's defining pizzicato has a resonant "ping" to it where even good recordings render those steady plucked notes as a kind of "thump."

 The movement contains a ruminative contrast introduced by the cello, which almost characterizes the quartet's deep voice as the music's counterpart to the sly philosopher Don Alfonso in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.  (While Beethoven endorsed the enlightenment values represented in that opera, the prim moralist in him disapproved of the libretto, along with that of Don Giovanni. My comparison would not have amused him.)

It's clear that the Dover believes in every moment of this music. The longest slow movement of the volume, the Molto adagio of Op. 59, no. 2, has no hint of slackening, which makes every measure of it fascinating. The group's rhythmically well-pointed finale leaves something in reserve for raising both dynamics and tempo at the Piu presto conclusion. 

In the "Harp" Quartet (op. 74 in E-flat major), the Dover illuminates Beethoven's increasing confidence in treating the four instruments orchestrally from time to time. The build-up of texture and tension, with the recurring harp suggestions lending extra color as well as the work's nickname, is remarkable. Beethoven was working on the music to "Egmont" at the same time, as the booklet notes point out, and his way of suggesting drama in abstract music is evident here, as well as in the first movement of op. 59, no. 3. 

The composer, somewhat blocked in his mastery of music for the stage (in part because of his ethical strictures about librettos), in his middle period comes up with abstract, instrumental music as implicitly stageworthy. The Dover is alert to such implications. Even its handling of transitional material in the C major quartet has a gestural freshness to match what seems to have been Beethoven's urge to give dramatic character to the genre. 

His mounting success in doing so somewhat explains why Beethoven quartet cycles (the Dover has done three in concert) are a recurring feature of chamber-music productions today.  It also lends the promise of monumentality to this ensemble's project of completeness for Cedille. I will await the late quartets with much interest.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Adam and Sully: Two-piano format can work smoothly when jazz musicians establish rapport

Adam Birnbaum recalled in an interview for American Pianists Association that his lessons with established master Kenny Barron  used to consist of student and teacher each seated at his own piano in Barron's studio just playing through songs. Explicit teaching came mainly in the form of Barron challenging Birnbaum to pick up tunes he didn't know as Barron glided through  them.

The teaching that took place was by example, mutual regard and spontaneous modeling. Even when two pianists are on an equal professional footing, the learning and teaching can go back and forth as an audience is being entertained.

That's the premise that was carried through to fruition in "Adam & Sully," part of the Grand Encounters series of concerts the APA is presenting this season. Suitable to the genre, this encounter took place at the Jazz Kitchen, home for many years for the piano-trio and solo phases of the APA competition in jazz. Birnbaum won it in 2004; Sullivan Fortner, his partner in Saturday's concert, took home the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz in 2015.

The APA had two Steinway grands brought in from Chicago for the duo encounter. Brilliant and responsive instruments of no discernible difference, they seemed perfect vehicles for this inspired partnership of contest winners from two generations (in the concentrated manner of musical generations).

In the second set, after one of Duke Ellington's lesser-known tunes, featuring extensive exchanges of building materials, the Earl Hines classic "Rosetta" showed the duo's fondness for offbeat accents working against but not obliterating the reigning pulse of the rendition.

After a twinned journey through George Shearing's "Conception," it was time for  back-to-back solo outings. Birnbaum showed a patient approach to "Body and Soul," allowing the tune time for him to open up to his interpretation, with its florid right hand contrasted to poky left-hand chords. 

When it was Fortner's turn to solo, he opened with some "chimes" high up  on the keyboard. That suggestion of  holiday cheer was soon shadowed by some brooding upon the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which proceeded reflectively. The treatment suggested an ironic flip of the title, somewhat on the order of Barbra Streisand's half-century-old take on "Happy Days Are Here Again." Fortner built toward a complicated bridge near the end, putting a cap on the emotional complications of this holiday season.

Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" brought the duo back in sync, with a steady tempo inviting both men to supply their own "walking bass" accompaniments. There were some zesty four-bar exchanges along the way. The announced finale was Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" (with no attempt to render trumpet's whinny at the end). There were a few episodes where I felt the pianists were essentially "playing the changes," but their imaginations would then regain control. Fortner's is of a particularly elfin kind: He brought in some Latin style,  paraphrasing "The Peanut Vendor" for a while. It all seemed to work, though there is precious little snow in a peanut vendor's milieu.

When the inevitable encore came, it was in the form of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," given anthemic treatment in which Fortner's introductory hint that the audience to join in at the end was ignored: people wanted to hear Fortner sing it. He did that in a crooning yet slightly jolly manner touching upon Dizzy Gillespie's and Louis Armstrong's vocal styles.  The duo's commitment to the perpetual hit amounted to a respectful account, while not being afraid to steer clear of the secularized reverence often draped over the song. 

"Adam & Sully" was a delightful late addition to 2021's return to live performances locally, but it was also live-streamed for homebodies. It seems all our lives have become combinations of on-the-town and stay-at-home experiences. This was a good one.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Steve Allee's commissioned program builds on legacy, displays vision

The music offered in "Steve Allee: Vision and Legacy" rests firmly on both parts of its title. The longtime Indianapolis pianist-bandleader brought to the public Friday some new compositions and arrangements that showcased the best (and best-prepared) version of his big band within recent memory.

The official poster alone was tantalizing enough.
Allee's customary acknowledgment of those musicians, friends, and relatives who helped him develop
here moved front and center. "A Tribute to Indianapolis Jazz Mentors" was the show's all-important subtitle. The vision proceeds from there. His gratitude was infectious, and was returned by the near-capacity audience at the event presented by the Indy Jazz Fest and the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

The Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University proved to be the ideal setting to represent the full scope of Allee's imagination, in addition to presenting his selection of musicians in the best light. 

Anchoring the rhythm section: Jeremy Allen and Steve Houghton

To start with one of his long-term colleagues right off the bat: I've never heard Steve Houghton's drums in a setting more conducive to displaying his excellence than I did Friday night. But everyone sounded splendid, and every instrumental voice could be heard along a full spectrum of soft-spoken to stentorian.

A short video bringing Indianapolis' heyday as a jazz center up to the present preceded the performance. Context therefore didn't have to depend entirely on the music to be evident. But of course what followed from there provided the most essential context: proof of the vitality and habit of looking forward that are characteristic of Allee and a host of other musicians from hereabouts. The cameo use of a couple of guest soloists — clarinetist Frank Glover and tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught — confirmed that the local scene has a history of developing significant stars to brighten the Indianapolis galaxy. 

Each guest had a solo spot: Glover's sinuous and multiphonic intensity was featured in Allee's arrangement of one of the "Zebra" pieces by the venerated pianist Claude Sifferlen, a mentor to both Glove and Allee and a regular performing partner of the clarinetist's until shortly before Sifferlen's death in 2010. 

Sophie Faught brought lyrical heft.

Faught brought her romantic effusiveness to bear upon Allee's urgent "A Prayer for All," which opened with a scene-setting unaccompanied solo by band bassist Jeremy Allen. The crowd was rapt throughout, refuting the derisive cliche that nobody listens to bass solos. Maybe Allee's kicker on his introduction to the piece was responsible: "We all love bass solos," he said.

Both guest soloists fronted the full ensemble for the concert's only other piece not by Allee, Freddie Hubbard's "Hub Tones." The pace was almost frenetic, but remained under control in Allee's suave arrangement. Hubbard's compositions were almost as influential as his trumpet-playing, and "Hub-Tones" marked a real advance of the bebop language. Friday's ensemble was fit for such a challenging finale, and was "braggin' in brass" with a mastery as complete as what I've heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra  deliver in Duke Ellington's piece of that title. 

Not only were blend and a full palette of colors important in some of the arrangements, but whenever the tempo quickened, the on-point precision, as in the repeated staccato phrases of "Spangalang," was remarkable. That winning piece, perhaps based on (to my ears, at least) the evergreen "Cherokee," featured blistering solos by saxophonist Mike Stricklin and trumpeter John Raymond. 

Something of a personal credo in these difficult times may lie behind "Truth Be Told," a typically reflective, then buoyant, Allee original. Allen's bowed bass at the start lent gravity to the ensemble introduction. When the assertive theme got under way, Anson Banks' plunger-muted trumpet inserted plaintive commentary. Especially admirable was the brief triplet-laced ensemble build-up to the solos, starting before Rusty Burge's vibraphone statement and recurring to welcome Rob Dixon's tenor sax, then Sandy Williams' guitar. The work amounted to a plea that "truth be told" in today's world, as well as a declaration that it must be.

 The "legacy" launching pad for the concert was established with substance in "Mickleyville," a tribute to the southwest Indianapolis neighborhood where Allee was first exposed to recorded jazz at his grandparents' home. Then came "Hub-Bub," a salute to one of the fabled "Indiana Avenue" clubs, though this one was on North Illinois Street. The piece tucked in some inviting interludes, like whispered conversations, in between the strutting and noisy club-life cheer. 

Like so much of Allee's music, it painted a picture even as it gloried in the pure, non-referential splendors of a well-designed composition, faithfully executed. You came away from such a performance with the satisfied assurance that a kind of milestone in Naptown jazz history had been crossed. The old nickname "Naptown," by the way, carries no implication that Indianapolis is a snoozy place. This concert may have permanently put that false reputation to rest. We can only hope.

 [Photos by Rob Ambrose]

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Misty in the trailer park: What art has to do with it in 'Bakersfield Mist'

You open your program for Phoenix Theatre's "Bakersfield Mist," and on facing pages are a statement from the playwright, Stephen Sachs, and opposite it the conventional page of complete credits, production history, and setting information.

Two different views of a modernist painting will be set against each other by drastically dissimilar characters, you learn, while awaiting the production's debut. When you see one of the credits is "fight choreographer" (Scott Russell), you are justified in concluding there is more than aesthetics at stake in the uninterrupted span of time ahead. Authenticity, on the other hand, is worth fighting over. And that's the terrain on which a pitched battle will ensue.

Maude (Jolene Mentink Moffat) puts her case to Lionel (Joshua Coomer).

Authenticity is what Maude Gutman, an ex-bartender in a trailer home under California desert sun, and Lionel Percy, a New York art expert whose help she solicits in assessing a painting she owns, have to come to terms with.  

On the surface, authentication brings them together, but it's focused only on a work of art Maude has acquired on the cheap and has reason to believe came from the hand, and the dripping paint cans, of Jackson Pollock. The questionable painting turns out to be a window through which both of them find out who they are. Achingly sincere in how they present themselves, one has been wounded by the art world; the other, by the real world.

"At the behest of the criterion of authenticity," wrote the literary critic Lionel Trilling, who flourished during the mid-20th-century heyday of Pollock's life and reputation and wrote a whole book called "Sincerity and Authenticity," "much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example disorder, violence, unreason."

F-bombs bursting in air open the play, as Jolene Mentink Moffat's voice of Mermanesque heft screams at Maude's neighbor's dogs menacing a rare visitor, another stuffy Lionel, played by Joshua Coomer. Mr. Percy, formerly highly placed in the art world, is attempting to coast on his reputation by working for a foundation on call to assess the value of artworks. Under the direction of Constance Macy, the actors negotiate their characters' mutual strangeness with amusing flair and a prickly combativeness that will burst into flame so oddly, yet naturally, that it would be an unforgivable spoiler for me to disclose what triggers the conflagration.

The setting, reduced to shambles eventually, begins as a scene of riotous yet almost orderly miscellany characteristic of the pack rat Maude admits to being. There's a row of bowling pins, some decorated and as large as Indian clubs, bordering the kitchen area, with various smaller gewgaws and mementos distributed elsewhere. Zac Hunter's set design is something you want to drink in responsibly. Personality flaunts itself at the expense of good taste, and that's sincere Maude on the way to becoming authentic Maude. Though she hates the style, she needs the artwork in question for contemplation on her life's ruins, and she's desperate for it to be accorded the stature she claims for it. That's where Percy comes in.

The purported Pollock painting, of which the audience gets merely momentary glimpses, may be on the order of his breakthrough work called "Lavender Mist."  Maude believes her brother and an amateur art detective of their acquaintance have sufficient evidence to attribute her prize possession to Pollock. Percy's initial scrutiny of the work results in a thumbs-down vote that he never departs from. In one of the premiere performance's funniest scenes, Coomer wordlessly examines the painting, contorting his body into various positions, stepping back and forth, as he trains his gimlet eye on the canvas. I was reminded of the purported practice of Clement Greenberg, a crucial champion of Pollock's work, to scrutinize new paintings by squinting and even putting fingers under his eyelids (ouch!) as he looked.

What Pollock actually represented is crucial to "Bakersfield Mist." The "problem of surface," in the critic Harold Rosenberg's phrase, became central in "action painting" (Rosenberg again)— abstract expressionism and many of its subsequent American offshoots. In "The Painted Word," Tom Wolfe mocked the problem of surface as an obsession with "flatness." Under critical prodding, Wolfe contended, artists adopted the orthodoxy that painting is an arrangement of forms and colors on a surface, and perspective is such an obvious illusion that it became morally questionable and artistically void in the 20th century. 

Randall Jarrell, another critic of the time, whose specialty was literature, amplified the point, stacking Pollock up negatively against the sacred monster, Pablo Picasso. "Pollock's anger at things is greater than Picasso's, but his appetite for them is small, is neurotically restricted," Jarrell wrote in "Against Abstract Expressionism," an essay published a year after Pollock's death in a drunk-driving crash. "Much of the inaccessible to Pollock. It has been made inaccessible by the provincialism that is one of the marks of our age." Near the end of his essay, Jarrell asks plaintively: "Doesn't the world need the painter's praise any more?"

Maude is trapped in that provincialism and an inability to praise the world, except in distortion by collecting its junk. Lionel Percy, blocked and frustrated by the commodification of art at its hub,  comes to realize that he is trapped in a provincialism of his own as well. They need the world's praise, perhaps, but none of us is entitled to that.

"Bakersfield Mist" is an uproarious piece of work that doesn't ask the audience to adopt a position vis-a-vis  abstract art. On the contrary, it reinforces art as a possible pathway toward getting at personal authenticity. Genuineness is a matter of belief, then of finding what that faith rests upon. What your deepest self brings to art is decisive, even if only for you. And this production comes at Sachs' play with a passionate variety of attack and insight. It holds out a certificate of authentication to be signed by anyone.

[Photo by Dragon's Eye Photography]